Disaster in Coal Town 1923

AN hour earlier and it might have been four hundred men.’
‘Does that make it any less filthy or cruel?’

The men were already dead when the whistle blew. All of Coal Town heard its terrible wail: those working underground in the snaking pits that undermined Coal Town had to hold their ears to stop them from bursting as the awful cacophony raced through every tunnel. Picture theatres darkened without warning; those playing football in the early spring sunshine stopped as if frozen and dropped their eyes; only the birds continued their merrymaking unawares, and only because they never ventured underground. Men who were lifting beers to their parched lips after a morning of work suddenly lost their thirst and replaced their glasses on the bar, confused at their own indecision. Women knew immediately and without compunction that men would not be coming home — ever. A thick, healthy, unending trail of smoke rose skywards. Their own coal burning ever so brightly. Police mounted on horseback were shoved aside as the crowds marched in from every direction. They stood back as miners argued over who would go into the inferno to find the men.

‘DO YOU THINK they are still trying to save us?’ a man croaked desperately.

‘Of course they are, mates don’t leave you behind.’

‘They’ll be too late, they are already.’

A LONE MINER appeared, an old man still fearless of death. He took note of the fire dancing along the tunnel, sucked a breath of foul air, and lay an ear close to each man’s darkened mouth. When he was sure they were all dead he stood and marked the wall, before walking to another area and then another; checking the dead, marking the wall— nineteen he counted, and four horses stiff as boards.

‘That last man would be the deputy,’ the old man lamented. ‘Must have come back for his crew.’

A short time later more men appeared, bent and exhausted, breathing in short painful gasps, gas slowly poisoning them. One dropped to his knees and when the others tried to pull him up he protested.

‘You boys leave me, black damp’s got me,’ and they had to.

‘What about the tools?’ another miner asked as he heaved a dead man onto his shoulders and stumbled toward the light. ‘They wouldn’t want to leave them.’

‘They won’t mind,’ his mate answered. ‘Might need them where they’re going, don’t know any other trade.’

‘Is that all of them?’ the pit boss asked as men arrived at the surface.

‘No, there’s more.’

‘Go back boys.’ And on their third descent another explosion forced them to leave their dead comrades. ‘Seal her.’ And men cried, their tears turning their dusted faces to paste.

‘YOU WOULD THINK they were burying the blacksmith all over again, there were so many people. I would say every man, woman and child in Coal Town; the men walking so close their shoulders touched, arms draped about each other; kids mingling among them like lambs; and the women with their straight backs and pitiful faces. Every house, shack and shop shut up tighter than a crayfish’s bum; curtains drawn out of respect.’ The young man pulled a tobacco tin bright like coloured dew from his pocket, prised it open and took out the sheath of white rolling paper. He waited a moment before taking out a pinch of dark tobacco, placing it carefully in the paper, rolling the work back and forth, back and forth until the smoke took shape. ‘Trucks, open, moving slowly through the crowd, and the boxes draped in purple and black.’

‘How many?’

‘Too many. Drums beating time, muffled, slow, a pipe band.’

‘The dead march,’ another man said despondently.

‘Sombre as all hell it was, and then they all raised their hats.’

‘What were they doing that for mate?’

‘They were saying goodbye, I reckon!’ The young man struck a match and inhaled deeply.

CHILDREN SUDDENLY FATHERLESS wandered about Coal Town, haunting it for days with their howls of grief until exhaustion overtook them and only whimpering escaped their wretchedly sad mouths, and then they went about life once more. After their tears-dried, the wives and mothers continued – it seemed for an eternity – to bake enough scones to feed their dead husbands and sons. They cooked rabbit stews, chops, rissoles and onion – anything their lost ones had loved to eat — in such amounts that the dogs grew fat and lazy. They continued to mend and iron until the men’s clothes were worn through with their love. Sometimes forgetting, they would ask a child to run up to the hotel to fetch their father home. But it was the men who seemed to have the hardest time going on and they pestered the miners who had gone down into hell to find their comrades.

‘Their faces were frozen, bodies already cooling; twisted into the wretched shape of those gasping for breath.’

‘What about the poor bloody horses?’ Mac Macgregor had lost all his teeth, was the father of four grown children, and his thick straw-coloured hair was greying around the edges, which led some people to think he was even older than his years. Since the days long ago when he worked as Liam’s wheeler, he had never lost his uncommon love for beasts, but nobody made fun of him anymore. He had saved a man’s life. ‘Anybody would have done the same,’ he said afterwards, and finally they had left him alone. By the time he had left the Lords mine to work at the stricken pit he was a different man. Or the same really, it was just that now men treated him with respect and that made him seem different. When he became a union delegate all the miners acknowledged him as a fine fellow.

‘Nigger lay across the shaft,’ the miner answered sadly, ‘her harness was broken, her skip tipped over; coal, dark as sable spilling across the rails: congealed blood smeared her side, bright and fetching it was. And behind her Tipsy, already bloating, lay tangled in her harness, wretched panic in her large dead eyes; the smell of sweat dried to salt was still strong among the gas.’

‘The best horse I ever saw work, that black bugger. Us’ta open the gates with his head and bite the trapper every time he got the chance -just for the fun. Kept that boy awake, that’s the truth.’ The men smiled affectionately.

‘Is it true Alfie Connelly got shot by a sniper while giving a German soldier water?’

‘Course it’s bloody true. I asked him one day why he did it, and all he said was the bloke was suffering.’

‘A lot of them blokes fought didn’t they?


‘Shouldn’t have been there, none of’em,’ Samuel Light burst out, and apologised just as suddenly. ‘Sorry boys, sorry,’ he repeated before storming out of the hotel.

‘What’s up with him?’

‘The lodge was taken in on the decision to seal the mine and Samuel was involved.. .so was I,’ Mac answered sadly.

The men stared thoughtfully at their beers and then something happened that was almost unforgivable. A man began to cry. ‘It should have been me down there, not Fred,’ the miner coughed. Snot bubbled from his nose, eyes as red as rouge. ‘I swapped my shift just to umpire a bloody cricket match. It should have been me down there dead.’

‘Well it ain’t,’ Mac burst out. Everybody froze, because they had never heard him raise his voice. ‘That’s just the way it is, now dry your bloody tears and be a man.’

‘Bloody bosses, it’s their fault. Should have seen it coming, pit blowing up like that.’ There was quiet, some men nodding their heads in agreement, others staring at the ground, beers frozen to their hands.

‘Look young fella, mining’s a rough business and there is always going to be danger.’ The old miner scratched his whiskers until the skin underneath reddened. ‘That’s why only silly mugs like us will do it. Now I don’t know what them lodge boys have been telling you,’ the miner suddenly stopped.

‘Go on,’ Macgregor said, ‘I’m a miner first, then a union delegate.. .besides, you have the right.’

The old man nodded. ‘As I was saying, don’t let the unions turn this into something political, because it was a bloody sad accident and we lost mates and that’s what is important.’ The old man collected himself. ‘Nobody should forget that Selby MacGlory was a mine manager and he’s as dead as the rest of them. Went down to save them he did, and it wasn’t even his pit, and it wasn’t the first time he did something like that. And old Jake Steward went through every tunnel looking for survivors, marking his presence, breathing bloody gas the whole time. He’s an under manager. Life ain’t always us against them son.. .not always.’

The men nodded in quiet agreement, Mac Macgregor nodding along with them and then another question arose. ‘They never got Teddy McPhersen out did they?’ ‘No they didn’t. The poor bugger’s still down there and without his mates.’

An appalling sadness took hold of the men once again. Each day after the accident, miners from the Lords pit, as if suddenly afflicted by a terminal moroseness, climbed the poppet head and stared into the distance towards the bedevilled mine, completely absorbed by its inactivity.

‘How long do you think those boys will be stood down?’ someone finally asked.

Chris, who only days before had been promoted to under manager — the youngest in Coal Town’s history — brought the news first to his father and uncle before walking to the poppet head and yelling as loudly as he could: ‘I have just heard that the miners will be paid full salaries until they open her up again. Every last man. You can all come down.’ This news was passed quickly to every man and women in Coal Town and so confused them that they were not sure to believe their friends and neighbours, and when they discovered that it was indeed so, they suffered seizures of insecurity because they had just witnessed an unexpected humanity.

WHEN THE STRICKEN mine opened again the men marched, following their lodge leaders back to work as if the accident had never happened, but if you asked their wives and mothers, they would tell you how their menfolk hesitated over their mugs of tea, had trouble doing the buttons up on their woolen undershirts, spent extra minutes looking for their pit-caps that hung on pegs by the door in full view, their tobacco spilled uncharacteristically from their hands as they rolled a smoke. But they all went without a word. A boy of fourteen marched back with the men of the stricken mine. When he was crushed by a skip, pit top, they sent below for his father. ‘His first day,’ the man whimpered, ‘he was so proud, as I was.’

When the boy’s teacher was told, he had just asked his class whether anybody knew where Zanzibar was. A large map of the world hung on the blackboard, the teacher standing in front of Africa, hiding it as if it were nonexistent. ‘Tommy…has been killed in the pits,’ he miserably repeated to his pupils. Some of his charges were already afflicted with breathing problems because of the smoke that drifted from the furnaces and coal fires that burned day and night during the winters and turned the sky into a grey sullenness. The boys grew smallish, tough enough.. .too tough; the girls shone bright as baubles and only god knows how their mothers managed. ‘I hope Tommy’s death will encourage you to study hard and find work outside the mines,’ the teacher said, noticing that the children were bent over their writing blocks, holding their pencils tighter than a purse, as quiet as slippers.

‘I am going down the mines, sir,’ a boy suddenly spoke up, his face smeared with dirt and tears. ‘I am as well, sir,’ another added, ‘Dad wouldn’t have it any other way.’ The teacher bowed his own head in defeat.

Wayne McLennan, from a coal mining family in Cessnock South Wales, Australia, is the author of Rowing to Alaska (Granta Books), a New York Times notable book of 2005, and Tent Boxing (Granta Books), longlisted for the William Hill British sport book of the Year. His short stories have been published in Granta, Griffith Review and the Asia Literary Review, as well as various Dutch literary publications. This is an extract from his forthcoming novel.